Out on the sunny patio at Wahpepah’s Kitchen, sizzling plates of bison and deer make their way down a table filled with Native American educators from across the country. The game meat joins other indigenous dishes on the kitchen’s menu, such as leafy salads topped with striped red corn and blue corn mush sweetened with berries and maple.
Chef Crystal Wahpepah, the owner of Wahpepah’s Kitchen and a member of the Kickapoo tribe, is proud to see the gathering. Food is medicine in the Native American tradition, and her Oakland restaurant is all about bringing together Indigenous producers and ingredients – sustainable meats, fresh berries, heirloom corn and herbs – to help people heal.
“Being a Native American chef is more than being a chef. It’s deeper than that,” says Wahpepah. “It’s about how you connect to the community and health. It’s about how we impact people and what we put in our foods.”
In the seven months since she opened Wahpepah’s Kitchen, one of only a handful of Indigenous restaurants in the nation, Wahpepah has become the toast of the culinary world. She’s speaking at national conferences, preparing for a Food Sovereignty Symposium and Festival in Michigan, and is a finalist for the 2022 Emerging Chef award from the James Beard Foundation.
But for all the buzz, Wahpepah’s overnight success has been a lifetime in the making. Wahpepah, 50, grew up in Oakland’s close-knit Native American community. She’s registered with the Kickapoo tribe of Oklahoma, like her mother and grandfather. When her parents split, her father, who was Black, went back to Louisiana.
She says it was hard being the only mixed-race kid in the family, the only one without a father in her life. But food traditions anchored her to her family and Native American heritage. “I ended up embracing it,” she says.
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